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Pilots Are Made Not Born

U.S. Military trainers of World War II

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1992 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 17, Number 4, Winter, 1992 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

Pilots are made, not born. While training planes have always had a place in history, the Second World War was the impetus in the development of a multitude of training aircraft that taught a generation to fly.

The Second World War proved to be the first global air war. The rise of air power in the conflicts in Spain and China in the late 1930s clearly showed the importance and power of modern air forces. The U.S. Army and Navy realized that in the near future they would have to train not just hundreds of pilots each year, but thousands, if not tens of thousands.

In early 1939, President Roosevelt brought this near future to a close present. Speaking to the Congress, President Roosevelt said that "our existing forces are so utterly inadequate that they must be immediately strengthened." Within a few months, over $300 million was made available to buy new aircraft and train new pilots for both the Army and Navy.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Army Air Corps and Naval aviation branch were small, and flight training was at a leisurely pace, often using obsolete two-seat observation models as training aircraft. By the 1930s, both the Army and Navy shared a three-stage flight training program, with the first stage called primary, the second basic and the third and final stage, advanced. Thus, it was necessary to provide three groups of trainers, each heavier, more powerful and more complex.

While the Army Air Corps assigned different designations to the three types of trainers, PT for primary trainers, BT for basic trainers and AT for advanced trainers, the Navy did not differentiate between the three. All of its trainers were given the N designation.

In 1931 the Army, in seeking a replacement for the obsolete Consolidated PT-1 and PT-3 trainers, evaluated the Stearman Aircraft Company's Cloudboy commercial biplane, which became the PT-9. In 1934, Stearman designed a two-seat open-cockpit, biplane powered by engines in the 215-225 horsepower range, for use as a military primary trainer. The Navy bought the first of this new design. The Army followed in 1936 with an order for the first PT-13s, powered by Lycoming R-680 engines. Later that year, Stearman became a division of the Boeing Aircraft Company.

By early 1941, the Army looked to three companies for its primary and basic trainers: Ryan, Boeing-Stearman and Vultee. The commercial Ryan S-T design was unusual in being a monoplane but was modified and designated the PT-16 with its 125 horsepower Menasco L-365 in-line engine. Later versions were the PT-20, PT-21 and PT-22 — the last two using a Kinner 5-cylinder radial engine. Many of the Ryan designs were utilized in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program.

With the rapid increase in aircraft production of all types, the supply of reliable engines became a problem. Several non-combat designs were fitted with a variety of engines.

The Boeing-Stearman PT design was produced with the Continental R-670 radial engine of 220 horsepower and was designated the PT-17. The Continental engine of the PT-17 had a rear mounted exhaust collector, while the PT-13's Lycoming had a prominent exhaust ring in front. About 150 of the Stearman design were fitted with Jacobs R-755 engines and were designated PT-18s.

With the rise of the monoplane fighters and bombers in the late 1930s, the Army looked at other monoplane trainers, including the commercial M-62 series of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp. Powered by a Ranger L-440 air-cooled, inverted in-line engine of 175 horsepower these open-cockpit monoplanes became PT-19s.

When the supply of Ranger engines was in question, the Fairchild fuselage was mated to the much bulkier Continental radial engine of 220 horsepower. The resulting PT-23 was certainly less gainly but flew and served well.

A version of the PT-19 was also modified for use with the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme in Canada. These were fitted with an enclosed canopy over the two cockpits and designated the PT-26. A number of PT-26s were also built in Canada by Fleet.

In 1934, the Navy was also looking for a new primary trainer with its main interest in the Stearman company's design. The Navy placed an order for a version using the older Wright J-5 (R-790) engine and gave it a designation of NS-1. The Navy's equivalent of the Army's PT-13/17 was designated the N2S, most of which were fitted with Continental R-670 engines of 220 horsepower.

In the years leading up to and during World War II, Stearmans were probably the most numerous primary trainers used by the U.S. armed forces. But the Navy, not entirely happy with the Stearman trainer, designed a new trainer in its own Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF), which was given the designation N3N. Like the Stearman N2S, the NAF N3N was a large open-cockpit biplane. However, unlike the N25, it featured metal-framed wings and large metal access panels in the fuselage for ease of maintenance. Painted an overall bright chrome yellow, the N3N was called the Yellow Peril, — not because of any dangerous flight characteristics, but more as a warning to experienced pilots not to get too close to its primary student pilots.

At one point in time, some trainers were even constructed out of a type of plastic-bonded plywood. Because of the concern over a possible shortage of aluminum and other strategic metals, the Timm N2T Tutor was constructed of a plastic-bonded plywood, called Aeromold. The Navy ordered about 260 of these low-wing monoplane primary trainers, which were delivered in 1943 and powered by a 220 horsepower Continental engine.

Basic was the second stage of flight training. The student pilot was introduced to such thrills as formation, instrument and aerobatic flight. The most widely used basic trainer in both the Army and the Navy was designed by Vultee. The all-metal monoplane with tandem cockpits fitted with a full canopy and fixed landing gear was initially powered by a 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine and designated BT-13 by the Army and SNV by the Navy. However, a shortage of engines resulted in the design being fitted with a Wright R-975 of the same power, becoming the BT-15 in Army service.

Although officially named Valiant, the Vultee trainer displayed an odd "buzz" or vibration in some flight modes, especially on the approach to landing. The design, because of the buzz, is best known by its nickname, the Vultee Vibrator.

The final stage of flight training was advanced. The student was introduced to more powerful and complex aircraft, with retractable landing gear. The standard advanced trainer for both the Army and Navy in World War II was the North American Aviation Texan, designated AT-6 or SNJ respectively.

Derived as a private venture in 1935, the original North American design was an all-metal monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was designated the BT-9 and BT-14 in the Army and the NJ in the Navy.

The unique designation BC-1 was assigned to the next version of the BT-9 ordered by the Army, due to a shortage of Congressional funds for training aircraft. The BC class was invented by the Army and stood for Basic Combat.

The addition of a 600 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340 engine and retractable landing gear to the original North American design gave birth to the AT-6/SNJ. With its fighter-like design and relatively close-spaced main landing gear, the Texan could be a handful on takeoffs or landings in a crosswind. The design became best known by student pilots as the Terrible Texan. Many an experienced Mustang or Corsair fighter pilot was reminded of the Texan's temper if they relaxed while landing an AT-6 or SNJ squadron hack.

The student received his final instruction in instrument, formation and combat flying, including air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery in the AT-615NJ. In the Navy, student aviators made their first carrier landings and takeoffs in hook-equipped SNJs on the USS Sable and Wolverine, training carriers stationed in the protected waters of the Great Lakes.

Although the vast fleets of Yellow Perils may be gone, pilots wishing to fly most CAF aircraft today must still have logged time in primary and basic trainers, or similar tailwheel aircraft. Moving into the single cockpit of a high performance World War II aircraft requires that the pilot demonstrate his flying skill and good judgement in an AT-6/SNJ Texan before soloing in a P-40, Wildcat or other fighter.

In this way, the training aircraft of World War II are still serving a vital mission, both with the Ghost Squadron and with hundreds of private owners. The trainers are still teaching the joys of flight in open cockpit biplanes, behind noisy round engines, and are working to preserve the traditions and flying skills for another generation.

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